Academic journal article Capital & Class

'New Labour', Welfare Reform and the Reserve Army of Labour. (Behind the News)

Academic journal article Capital & Class

'New Labour', Welfare Reform and the Reserve Army of Labour. (Behind the News)

Article excerpt


'New Labour's' 2001 Manifesto (Labour Party, 2001) has a whole chapter dedicated to 'A Modern Welfare State'. The chapter outlines the policies it introduced in its first term and pledges for the next term aimed at promoting 'work for those who can and security for those who can't' (ibid., p. 24). For people of working age these policies include the various 'new deals', Working Families Tax Credit (WFTC) (the benefit paid to low paid and/or part time workers), the National Childcare Strategy (NCS) and the National Minimum Wage (NMW). These policies are more concerned with the project of 'promoting work' for those of working age. Little is said of how the working age able-bodied can expect security if they cannot work for whatever reason. The promotion of paid employment has come to dominant 'new Labour's welfare reform programme because it is held to be the 'best anti-poverty, anticrime and pro-family policy yet' (ibid.).

This paper examines the centrality of paid work to 'new Labour's' welfare reform programme, arguing that the programme aims to re-regulate the reserve army of labour to increase its size and increase its closeness to labour markets by making it more 'employable'. In this context 'employable' actually means making labour cheaper to hire through the direct and indirect subsidy of wages. It is demonstrated how 'new Labour's' approach differs to that of the Conservatives under whom the reserve army effect arguably lost its importance as non-employed people (unemployed, lone mothers and sick and disabled people) became detached long term from labour markets.

'New Labour' and 'workfarism'

There is debate about the balance between continuity and change in the labour market and income maintenance policies of the Conservatives and those of 'new Labour'. 'Supply-side fundamentalism' (Peck and Theodore, 2000, p. 729)--a focus upon the characteristics and behaviour of non-employed people in causing unemployment rather the (lack of) demand for labour--provides an important source of continuity. The main source of discontinuity is argued to be the substantial resources that 'new Labour' have invested in their flagship policies, most notably the new deals and the support that the new deals give in helping non-employed people prepare for work (see Peck, 1999).

'New Labour's' welfare reform programme has recently been described as being part of a 'workfarist' shift in Britain (Peck, 1999, Peck and Theodore, 2000). The way the term 'workfare' is used in this sense differs from its traditional association with forcing claimants to work in return for their benefits. In contrast, 'workfarism' represents a reorientation of social policy to make it more 'in tune' with neo-liberal growth, for example, the facilitation of flexible labour markets through social policy in the pursuit of a competitive edge in global markets. In this sense social policy has become central to economic restructuring aimed at supporting 'free' markets, rather than being concerned with protecting universal rights that were associated with Keynesianism.

The trends towards a 'workfarist' state were visible towards the end of the Conservative's eighteen year reign. In the 1990s, for example, Peck and Theodore (2000, p. 734) observe the emergence of what they call a 'new orthodoxy in labour-market policy' involving 'both incentives and pressures to work in the context of a laissez-faire approach to the demand side of the labour market'. Under 'new Labour' this orthodoxy has been consolidated through more generous and wider-scoped work incentives ('tax credits' and the NMW) and benefit penalties that can now be invoked to punish those officially defined as 'unemployed' and also lone mothers and sick and disabled people who do not explore with the relevant government agencies the possibilities for securing paid employment. However, as Peck (1999, p. 347) notes in the case of unemployed people, 'the bitter pill of mandatory participation has been sugared under the New Deal by the twin emphases placed on quality programming and participant choice'. …

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